On one of my first visits to Gettysburg many years ago, as I stood on Little Round Top with my large format camera waiting for the setting sun to outline the bronze of a Civil War cannon, I noted one other visitor still present at that rather late “tourist hour”. As we stood together looking down on “Devil’s Den”, the “Peach Orchard” and “The Wheat Field” where so many Americans – blue and gray – had fallen, I noted the same tears in his eyes as were running down my own cheeks. When explaining that he as a Canadian had been coming here every year at holiday time for 27 years and planned soon to retire here so that he could stand on that historic hilltop more often, he caused me to pose a simple question. “Why?” I asked. “Because” he said, “when I stand here I am filled with a feeling I can’t quite experience anywhere else.”
Coincidentally – and yet appropriately – It was the Union officer who rallied the handful of Union soldiers who saved this very hill, and with it perhaps the entire battle of Gettysburg itself, who first put into words the theme which this column hopes to underline. Visiting Gettysburg on the 25th anniversary of the nation’s greatest land battle where he dedicated a monument, General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain looked around and said: “In great deeds something abides. On great fields something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear, but spirits linger.”
Just a short way south over the Maryland border I have stood in sight of the old Dunker church and looked out over what was once a cornfield raked by cannon fire, and a country lane known as the sunken road into a pastoral setting near Antietam Creek where in a single day 25,000 of America’s youth were cut down and where the horrified citizens of North and South caught a glimpse of what lay ahead. There by that old German Baptist church I was again visited by a haunting sense of the presence of those hovering “spirits” Chamberlain spoke of. I have felt the same while circling Shiloh’s “Bloody Pond” and New Market’s “Field of Shoes” where 14, 15 and 16-year-old cadets from VMI saved the day for the South one rainy/muddy Shenandoah Valley day in 1864. And on the top of a sloping green hill known as Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg, a military cemetery is the hallowed resting place of 1500 Union Boys in Blue who in five deadly assaults attempting – unsuccessfully - to reach the heights where they now lay in silent honor. It is the kind of place where one walks slowly, hat in hand, and speaks in whispers.
For 14 years of my “corporate” life, I worked for the world’s most well-known granite quarrying and monument manufacturing firm, and was intimately associated with the art and craft of memorialization from concept and design to final dedication. Our corporate headquarters and quarries were located in Barre, Vermont where in the industry’s heyday more than 75 competitive companies thrived. It followed that nearby Hope Cemetery became “home” to some of America’s most grand and elegant examples of memorial craftsmanship. It was a literal showplace of the sculptors’ art. As I would take visitors on a tour of that magnificent collection and tell them the interesting history behind individual examples of an almost-lost art form, I always concluded with my very favorite which also was the tiniest marker in a forest of giants.
A local family of very modest means had lost their only child; a little girl they had adopted when unable to produce their own. They approached one of our firm’s designers explaining that with her they had lost the most precious and irreplaceable part of their life and wished to honor her with the very best their meager savings could make possible. The result was a small but carefully designed vertical slab on which the vital information was small compared to the heartfelt message. Written large and cut deep were just three words: WE LOVED HER
I see Memorial Day as a time to bind families and generations together, especially in a land of freedom in which we are surrounded by places made sacred by what happened here.
Major Tom Cooper, who flies the giant C-17 Air Force transport plane pays a visit to the grave of his grandfather, former WWII S/Sgt. Auburn F. Cooper, USMC, a brother of the writer.